Sugar is a very misunderstood food. It tastes good, makes you feel good, and gives you the energy and motivation to do good, so what’s not to love, right? We’re exposed to sugary treats almost everywhere—especially during the holidays. Sugar isn’t your enemy, but before you jump on the holiday dessert train, here are a few things you should know about how sugar impacts your mind, body, and emotions.
Sugar is a Highly Addictive Substance
Did your parents ever give you candy as a reward when you were a child? There’s more to that on a biological level than you or your parents probably knew. Research shows that sugar is more addictive than cocaine and acts like a drug in the body. Sugar and other highly-addictive drugs (legal and illegal) trigger reward centers in the brain on a biochemical level that make you feel good when you consume them. Your body knows that when you consume sugar it will feel good (thank you, serotonin): as such, the body keeps craving more. The more sugar you eat, the more intense this addictive cycle gets with quite a few unexpected consequences.
Sugar, Mood, and Willpower
Because sugar is so addicting, it has a direct negative correlation to willpower and your ability to make good decisions. This is amplified by the prolonged effect sugar has on mood. In the short term, sugar makes you feel happy and elevated, but it then causes a rollercoaster of up-and-down emotions including irritability, impulsive behaviors, anger, anxiety, and even an increased risk for depression.
This culminates in the inevitable “sugar crash” that leaves you craving more.
None of this is good during the holidays when you are faced with shopping and spending decisions, visiting with friends and family who get under your skin, and even dealing with the numerous other stressors the holidays bring.
The effect of sugar on mood and willpower is in part due to how sugar deregulates neurotransmitter production and causes inflammation in the body.
Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin help regulate mood and affect happiness, motivation, and stress. Inflammation is now believed to be a factor in depression, more-so than a chemical imbalance, which is why anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric and ginger have such a profound effect on mental health. One study even showed how turmeric nearly outperformed Prozac in treating depression.
Sugar’s Effect on the Physical Body
The mental and emotional effects of sugar are compelling enough to control your sweet tooth, but what effect does sugar have directly on physical health? Excess sugar can cause brain fog, inflammation, a decline in cognitive function, Type 2 diabetes, increases the risk of heart disease and cancer, not to mention acne.
Inflammation, in addition to being a factor in depression, also causes pain in the body, making any other health conditions feel that much worse. Sugar is also linked to fatty liver disease, gout, and increased cellular aging, which makes you look older than you are. And the icing on the cake? That energy boost you get from sugar? After the initial sugar high, it actually drains your energy and vitality, leaving you more tired and sluggish than before you consumed it.
Easy Ways to Reduce Sugar Intake
The holidays should be a time for celebration and joy, not frustration and fatigue. The solution isn’t to eliminate sugar, but to minimize its impacts by reducing the amount you eat, and this may be easier than you ever imagined.
Processed foods and drinks have more sugar than you probably realize, and you’re not even getting the full sweet flavor experience from them. If you want energy, go for a coffee, unsweetened. If you want the energy and mood-boosting effects of sugar, have some dark chocolate or pure cacao. These trigger a dopamine mood and energy-boosting response in the body and have far less sugar than other sweets or types of chocolate.
Add other foods that trigger mood-boosting neurotransmitters in the body that don’t have the addictive side effects. But stay away from diet soda and artificial sweeteners. These trick the brain into thinking it’s going to get a dopamine hit, and when it doesn’t, you’ll crave the sweets even more. Pick one of these things, stick with it for a week, and see how you feel. Happy holidays!
Jaya Jaya Myra is a wellness lifestyle expert and go-to media expert on mind-body wellness, stress management, mindfulness, food for mood, and natural, healthy living. She’s a best-selling author, TEDx and motivational speaker, and creator of The WELL Method for purpose-filled healthy living. Visit www.JayaJayaMyra.com